The law library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Howard Campus was set alightt.   Picture: FACEBOOK/DONAVEN MANNARU
The law library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Howard Campus was set alightt. Picture: FACEBOOK/DONAVEN MANNARU

I WAS heartbroken when I saw the images of the gutted and charred remains of Howard College law library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which was torched last week.

I didn’t care too much when students burned those paintings at the University of Cape Town, and I was jubilant when the statue of Cecil John Rhodes was pulled down. But in my mind, libraries are different — almost sacred. I was raised on the story that, no matter how busy he was, Lenin always found the time to return his library books.

Since the incident, I have read both justifications and condemnations. I accept that the burning of the library was, in a way, a rational step. In the weeks of struggle leading up to the incident, the demands of the students were all but ignored by the public.

And this was not just about fees. What seemed to have triggered the burning was a report that a student had been raped by a policeman — the very people the Constitution entrusts to protect us. It certainly warranted our immediate and urgent attention. But, we mostly did not pay attention, until the library was burned.

I also agree that SA is a violent society, and that the burning of public institutions has a long place in the struggle against racism. Violent repression begets a violent response. Behind Fallism is a decolonisation agenda, part of which is a struggle to challenge ideas and values that came with colonialism; to reject those that perpetuate white supremacy. This agenda resonates strongly in the legal arena. Much of our private law comes directly from Roman Dutch law. Some academics have even questioned the western roots of the Constitution.

Law tends to be conservative and slow to change. Laws are supposed to be the codification of the collective values of society. This means legal change is often a step behind social change. So, the legal fraternity tends to be slow to change too — it is full of traditions and conventions absorbed as a result of colonialism.

You only have to see counsel sweating in their robes to know these robes did not originate in Africa. Just today, I saw an invitation for an event inviting women attorneys to a "high tea", complete with a dress code of "heels and hats". I mean, what the hell.

More fundamental than the silly stuff such as the robes and M’Lords is that black and women lawyers continue to be systematically discriminated against and excluded. It all starts at university, if not before. And despite efforts, transformation continues to be an uphill battle. The result is a legal profession that is elitist and exclusionary.

But, still, I cannot excuse or condone the destruction of that library. It is self-defeating. Ruth First — a revolutionary if ever there was one — once said if you want to win an argument, you have to listen to your opponent. Even if (as some have suggested) the library was full of colonial-era books, in a struggle of ideas destroying the books will not win the argument. Instead, to destroy the argument, you need those books.

What remains to be asked is what is the role for the legal community in preventing this from happening again? I suggest it needs to involve itself in the broader struggle the students have taken up.

It must do more to look at how to make law studies affordable; how to make justice accessible. It needs to debate the domination of English in courts, critically engage the theoretical foundations of our legal system and ask how serious we are about developing an African jurisprudence.

This is not controversial; it is, after all, only what the country’s Constitution demands.

There is a scene in Spike Lee’s movie Do The Right Thing, which documents how in a racist society simmering tension leads to a group of people burning things down.

After the crowd has burned down the racist-owned pizzeria they — in the fervour of the moment — move on to the Korean-owned corner shop.

But someone from inside the crowd — Coconut Sid — stops them after the store owner proclaims: "Me no white. Me no white. Me black. Me black. Me black."

Perhaps, if the law community was doing more for social change and less of the high teas, the next time an angry group wants to burn down a law library there will be a Coconut Sid to stop it.

• Rabkin is law and constitution writer.